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  • A Relational Model for Native American Literary Criticism
  • Thomas Hove (bio) and John M. McKinn (bio)

The Problem of Authenticity

One of the central debates in Native criticism concerns the difficulty of resolving conflicts between ethnic identification and literary judgment. Approaching this problem from a sociological perspective, we suggest a way to rethink critical treatments of Native American identity and authenticity. Specifically, the following proposal outlines a model for discussing the concept of ethnic authenticity in terms of the social relations that influence the field of Native American literary production. We focus on two pragmatic issues: first, how members of the field put judgments of authenticity to social use; second, how critics and authors perceive these judgments as either legitimate or illegitimate. We believe that questions about the grounds of authenticity cannot be answered by reconstructing the purportedly distinct contents of Native and non-Native epistemologies. Instead of evaluating authenticity's epistemological dimensions, we claim that its rhetorical and sociological dimensions take greater precedence. Accordingly, we recommend reframing the problem of authenticity as follows: in what institutional, cultural, and social relations do the meanings of authenticity matter, and how do different members of the field use these meanings for either cooperative or competitive purposes?

If critics focus on the social foundations and strategic uses of identity concepts, they can simply assume that contradictions and ambivalences will inevitably accompany discussions of ethnic authenticity. From a relational perspective, these contradictions and [End Page 197] ambivalences don't originate in critical discourse itself. Instead they grow out of the dynamics of social struggles for domination—even when those struggles have altruistic and solidaristic goals. As Pierre Bourdieu's sociological studies have vividly illustrated, struggles for domination take place in various fields of power that intersect with and nest within one another. With respect to Native criticism, the fields of power that influence it obey their own unique evaluative logics. At stake in these different logics are either institutional rank, cultural expertise, or ethnic identification.

Efforts to assess the Native American literary field would benefit from Bourdieu's relational approach to cultural production for three reasons. First, it shifts focus to the social foundations of identity concepts. Second, as a result, it promises to take critical discussion beyond the often pointless quest for epistemological foundations. Third, its assumption that different forms of capital circulate within and among different fields of power helps identify various social uses of identity concepts. We set aside questions about whether the concept of authenticity has identifiable ontological or epistemological referents. Instead we treat authenticity as a form of "ethnic capital" that acquires its value from power struggles within the field of Native criticism.

Bourdieu describes fields as hierarchical "social spaces" in which people occupy different status positions. Just as importantly, people perceive one another to occupy these positions, sometimes accurately and sometimes inaccurately (Distinction 99–125; Bourdieu and Wacquant, Invitation 94–115). Like the broader field of cultural production, Native criticism is a relatively autonomous social space that operates according to its own rules and power dynamics. In turn these operations predetermine how critics will be able to use certain terms and concepts. They also predetermine what kinds of political, cultural, and aesthetic judgments critics can make about either authors or other critics. In outlining a map of the field's relational dynamics, we call attention to some of its social and emotional stakes. Since these stakes can often be overlooked in strictly epistemological or normative discussions, we hope that our extension of Bourdieu's model of cultural production can bring to light some of the field's [End Page 198] elusive laws of classification, judgment, and "symbolic consecration" (see Field 112–41; Rules 141–73).

Identity and Authenticity

Ever since publications like Charles Larson's American Indian Fiction and Paula Gunn Allen's Studies in American Indian Literature, Native American literary criticism has wrestled with the problem of authenticity. In recent political philosophy, many complex and interesting debates have arisen concerning the recognition and legitimacy of cultural and ethnic authenticity (see Benhabib; Habermas, Inclusion; Taylor; Turner; Young). These debates are particularly relevant to discussions about resolving cross-cultural conflicts. But to simplify the concept in sociological terms, we...


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pp. 197-208
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